Practicing yoga benefits both brain structure and function by increasing grey matter in brain regions responsible for memory recall and emotion regulation, according to research findings published in Brain Plasticity (2019; doi:10.3233/BPL-190084). Researchers at the University of Illinois and Wayne State University reviewed 11 studies that examined the effects of yoga on brain structures, function and cerebral blood flow.

“We identified some brain regions that consistently come up, and they are surprisingly not very different from what we see with exercise research,” said lead study author Neha Gothe, PhD, director of the Exercise Psychology Lab and professor at University of Illinois. “Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes. So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.”

“The practice of yoga helps improve emotion regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression,” Gothe said. “And that seems to improve brain functioning.” Other areas of the brain related to the default mode network tend to be larger or more efficient in those who practiced yoga. Study co-author, Jessica S. Damoiseaux, PhD, professor in the Institute of Gerontology and in psychology at Wayne State University, said, “The prefrontal cortex, a region just behind the forehead, is essential to planning, decision-making, multitasking, thinking about your options and picking the right option. The default mode network is a set of brain regions involved in thinking about the self, planning and memory.”

Damoiseaux added, “We need more rigorous and well-controlled intervention studies to confirm these initial findings.”